One Year After 9/11: Is Houston Ready?
How is Houston equipped to deal with the threat of future terrorist attacks?
by Rob Folk
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, Houston and the entire country has been on heightened awareness for terrorist activity. But how has Houston’s raised awareness really prepared our city for such an attack, and how well are we equipped to deal with one?
Many local government officials feel that dealing with terrorism here would be very similar to dealing with industrial accidents – something with which Houston is all too familiar. Common characteristics of these two catastrophes include explosions and hazardous chemicals resulting in mass casualties. David White, publisher of Industrial Fire World magazine, defines a terrorist attack as a “hazardous materials incident with attitude.” But White also stresses that the risk and potential size of multiple, simultaneous incidents present a challenge. Houston continually faces the possibility for some kind of major industrial accident with refineries, ships and cargo in the Port of Houston and hazardous materials traveling through our city. In recognizing this, city leaders have made numerous preparations for industrial disasters, including those associated with terrorist attacks, some dating back nearly 50 years.
Some may remember the Texas City disaster of 1947. The Grand Camp, a ship loaded with fertilizer, exploded and caused the Monsanto Chemical Plant, among others, to burst into flames. More than 600 people were killed and thousands injured. The disaster was one of the largest ever to happen at an American port.
To respond to future events, the Channel Industries Mutual Aid was formed in 1955. CIMA is a nonprofit organization that combines firefighting, rescue, hazardous material handling and emergency medical capabilities. Its goal is to protect the refining and petrochemical industry in the Houston Ship Channel area. CIMA members include industrial companies, municipalities and government agencies. Maintaining a corps of highly trained emergency personnel, CIMA manages a pool of more than 200 pieces of specialized equipment, including rescue trucks, high-volume foam pumpers and fully equipped ambulances.
For the past 17 years, Industrial Fire World magazine has hosted a conference each April in Houston. The past two conferences have focused on the issue of terrorism. White feels that Houston would be a poor target for terrorism because Houston has such good security and such a well-trained emergency community.
The Houston Police Department has provided anti-terrorism training for its officers for the past five years. And since 9-11, HPD has conducted refresher courses for officers and required this training for all civilians working for the department. HPD also has increased its presence at large events, such as the Fourth of July Freedom Festival. According to John Leggio, HPD spokesperson, the main difference since 9-11 is that ?the HPD is on higher alert and more vigilant for this type of threat.?
The Houston Fire Department has been preparing and training for a terrorist attack response for years. In March 1998 and again in January 2002, the department conducted field training exercises that simulated an explosion and chemical weapon attack at Reliant Arena. These exercises included training not only for HFD but also for HPD, EMS, the city and county offices of emergency management and the Houston medical response system. Assistant Fire Chief Jack Williams says, “Nine-eleven made us more aware of what can happen. Nine-eleven has been a jolt of awareness to the entire emergency response community.”
The Houston area has an organization called Houston TranStar. This group is made up of the Texas Department of Transportation, Metro, the City of Houston and Harris County. Besides managing and maintaining the Houston-area roads and highways, TranStar houses and supports our region’s emergency management. In April 1996, the TranStar Emergency Operations Center (EOC) became operational. Houston was the first metropolitan area to bring all of the city, county, and regional emergency management offices together. TranStar takes action against any emergency, weather-related or man-made. The EOC coordinates all emergency response for our area. “September 11th and our most recent disaster, tropical storm Allison, have fostered greater agency cooperation and provided a new enthusiasm in training,” says TranStar Public Information Officer Artee Jones. For more information go to www.houstontranstar.org.